OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, an area of more than 900,000 acres in the center of the Olympic Peninsula, is a wilderness of virgin forests, precipitous canyons, and alpine meadows, from which emerge lofty mountain peaks with shining glaciers and vast snow fields. With the surrounding Olympic National Forest, the region is one of the few great areas of primeval beauty left in the United States, and its unique rain forests are as spectacular as the inchoate mass of its mountains.
In 1774, Juan Perez, a roving Spanish sea captain sailing up the coast, sighted the snowy pinnacles of the Olympics against a blazing blue summer sky. He named them Cerro de la Santa Rosalia, but this euphonious name was not destined to last; 14 years later Captain John Meares, in command of a British barkentine off the Washington coast, declared the mountains a fit home for the gods and named the highest peak Mount Olympus.
There seems to be no exact record of the first ascent of Mount Olympus. A report made in Steel Points, published at Portland, Oregon, in July 1907, states that Henry D. Cook and B. F. Shaw, members of a private exploring expedition, accompanied by two Indians, climbed the peak in July 1854. In the park superintendent's files is a sketch of one of the earliest expeditions into the park area; in 1890 a company of picked men, headed by young Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil, blazed their way from Hoodsport up past Lake Cushman and on up the North Fork of Skokomish River to the East Fork of the Quinault, enduring severe hardships as they forged through great forests where no trails existed.
The finest example of the magnificent rain forests are found in the lower valleys of the western slopes, where great stands of Douglas fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, and silver fir grow to gigantic size and height. Temperate climate, winter rainfall, and other conditions favor a tropic luxuriance in both trees and undergrowth. The fallen trunks of enormous trees become nourishment for seedlings that take root upon them, and thus new trees continually replace the old. Great festoons of moss hang from the towering trees, and the ground in some places is an almost impenetrable tangle of fern, vine maple, and other jungle-like growth.
The Olympic Mountains arise in their splendid confusion about the center of the park, encircled by a belt of evergreen forest 50 miles wide and more than 200 miles in circumference. Here are no ordered ranges, but instead a vast pile of rugged rock and snow-covered knifelike peaks, varying in elevation from 3,000 to 8,000 feet, the height of Mount Olympus. Numerous mountains that have been explored are nearly as high as Olympus, and there are others yet to be climbed and named. In places the mountainsides drop almost vertically for more than 3,000 feet, and from the tops of these sheer stone cliffs flow hundreds of filmy waterfalls fed by melting snows.
More than 50 glaciers, with approximately 36 square miles of ice and snow fields, drape the peaks, among them some of the largest and best-formed glaciers in the United States. Those on Olympus are particularly remarkable, one of the most interesting and beautiful being the Blue Glacier, which is really a clear blue. Here the climber, making his way over the rugged terminal moraine, may observe, wherever the bedrock is exposed, deep grooves in the striated surface, the marks of the glacier when it filled the valley to a lower altitude. On the upper glacier where the slope becomes steep, the ascent is made over fields of ice and snow and ledges of glaciated rock to vantage points alongside and above the rugged and picturesque ice-fall. From these points may be viewed the broadly sweeping curves of the medial and lateral moraines and lines of flow in the ice, the curves of the glacier high in the cirques or ice-pockets near the summit; and crowning all, too steep to retain a mantle of ice and snow, the cliffs, the knife-edge crests, and jagged pinnacles of rock that rise between and above the ice-pockets.
Upon nearly every high peak several glaciers are slowly grinding down the rugged sides; at the same time they are receding and forming rivers of ice, the headwaters for the principal streams in the park. Within this glacial field are yawning crevasses and great boulders shielding columns of ice from the summer sun; there are smaller rock fragments sunk in deep wells and pits beyond reach of sunlight; silvery streams of melted ice and snow, plunging from shallow channels into the deep roaring moulins or devil's cauldrons; and above are the lonely pinnacles of rock and ice.